Fighting the scourge of sexual violence on campus

Since November 2013, Hanna Tefera had been the director of the university Gender Affairs Directorate at Adama Science and Technology University in Ethiopia. On 18 January 2018 she received a letter of dismissal from her position. No reason was given. Hanna said her removal was sudden and she did not know why it happened. Perhaps, by saying this she was trying to protect herself and those involved from further repercussions.

The Addis Standard reported that the removal of Hanna was related to a case she was investigating. Last December Hanna wrote a letter to the president of the university reporting a sexual assault committed against a senior female student and demanding an immediate inquiry into the matter.

The letter details that the student was attacked by an unidentified, armed member of the military who broke into her dormitory (following political instability in the past couple of years, the military has been deployed in universities to control potential protests and disruptions).

Referencing relevant provisions of the constitution and the regulations of the university, Hanna condemned the crime. She underlined that, if a dormitory search was necessary, it would have been appropriate to send in female soldiers.

In her letter, Hanna further expressed her concern about the multiple cases of sexual harassment reported to her office and demanded that the university take serious steps to address them.

It is reported that Hanna was fired following a direct order from one of the board members of the university, who is also a senior officer in the Ethiopian National Defence Forces.

Although, arguably, this might seem an exceptional case, it symbolises the overall situation and the indifference of university leadership on this matter. In such circumstances, how can a university be a safe learning environment for female students? What can student services professionals do to improve the situation?

Deep-rooted patriarchal orientation

Owing to the deep-rooted patriarchal orientation of the social, historical and cultural dimensions of everyday life in Ethiopia, gender bias, inequality and sexual violence are rife. Higher education is no exception.

Studies conducted in different public universities have documented the causes, extent and effects of sexual violence. A recent study at Wolaita Sodo University, for instance, reported that of the 462 female students in the study, 36.1% said they had experienced sexual violence since they joined the university, while the figure was 45.4% with regard to lifetime experience.

Another study, at Madawalabu University, found that of the 411 female students in its sample, 41.1% had experienced sexual violence over their lifetime, with 25.4% of respondents having suffered in the last 12 months.

Exploring why female students drop out, a study at Jimma University found that 82.4% of respondents (of 108 students who had dropped out of their studies) gave sexual harassment as a reason, with 57.4% citing pregnancy. Studies at other universities also reported similar situations of considerable sexual violence.

Sexual violence is reported to have been committed by fellow students, faculty and university employees as well as other people unrelated to the university. Some students come to the university with previous experience of sexual violence. This, combined with the insufficiency of counselling and support services, makes it very difficult for them to overcome their trauma and feel comfortable in the university environment.

Studies on this issue agree that the support made available for female students is very limited. While the cultural norm that makes speaking out taboo inhibits students from coming forward to seek help, even in cases when they do, universities are often ill prepared. Student services have limited numbers of qualified staff and are too often concerned with logistical matters.

In effect, the psychological aspect of the learning environment is largely underemphasised.

The bigger issue: gender bias

In January, Aida (a pseudonym), the assistant dean of the school of law at one of the country’s main universities, shared on social media the conversation she had with the (then) president of the university.

According to her account, she went to the president’s office to discuss the budget for moot court competitions she was organising, only to be challenged by the president about why a more senior person was not assigned to handle the job.

Allegedly, the president, who for the most part of the exchange was not even looking at her while he shuffled through papers, insisted on making the point that she was not the right person for the job, though not in those words.

She had to explain that it was in her job description to oversee the competitions and that she had done so in previous years before she could even get him to discuss the matter. This is only one anecdotal example of the prevalence of gender bias at the apex of Ethiopian higher education institutions.

Progress has been made in narrowing the gender gap, both in student enrolment (from 24.4% of the undergraduate student population in 2005 to 32% in 2015) and in faculty composition (from 10.3% women in 2005 to 12% in 2015).

Nonetheless, women continue to experience high levels of differential treatment. Despite the increase in numbers of women at entry level, gender bias and sexual violence continue to damage the experiences of female students and deter them from succeeding.

Female students are also largely concentrated in the fields of social sciences and humanities. It has even been reported that institutions actively discourage female students from choosing fields in the hard sciences as a strategy to reduce the dropout rate of female students and this is, ironically, considered part of ‘affirmative action’ schemes.

Meanwhile, a recent study revealed that women are 50% less likely to hold the rank of lecturer and are 72% less likely to be in a position of assistant professor or above. This staggering difference is explained by a number of mediating factors that deter women from career progress, despite statistical improvements in the overall picture.

Weak government commitment

Although women’s rights are enshrined in the constitution and institutions are required to develop gender policy, to organise gender affairs offices and related activities, things do not seem to have improved much.

In 2010 the Ministry of Education, in its five-year plan, set a nationwide goal to increase the number of females in top leadership positions in higher education from three to 16. While the official document was vague on what exactly top leadership positions mean, or how the target was to be achieved, at the end of the period the number of senior women actually fell to one.

This clearly demonstrates the lack of commitment by the government. For the following planning period the target has been revised to at least one female in a top leadership position per institution.

Policy reforms are not successful in solving the problem because of the fundamental misconception that equates gender inequality with disparities in enrolment. They therefore overlook the structural impediments that reinforce the problem. Noting this, Tebeje Molla and Trevor Gale rightly argue that the gender issue in Ethiopian higher education has to be about inequality “reframed as capability deprivation” rather than as a disparity in enrolment.

What can be done?

In a university where the president may have a strong gender bias, in a higher education system where the problem of gender inequality has, arguably, not yet been properly defined, what can student services do to address the problem?

While a top-down approach to behavioural change is debatably slow and not as effective as a bottom-up one, a peer-based approach is a viable alternative to consider, though by no means the only one.

Attitudinal change among the university community is crucial, not only to prevent sexual violence from happening but also to give victims the confidence to speak out and seek help.

Decades of social, psychological research has shown that bystanders are more likely to intervene when they have a clear understanding about the nature of the violence and the skills needed to engage in prosocial behaviour without compromising their own safety. There have been cases showing that empowering students and student leaders as bystanders is an effective way to fight sexual violence on campus.

This requires continuous engagement in university-wide awareness programmes. In designing and implementing such programmes it is also important to consider the following points:
  • • The programmes should reach the entire university community – not only female students, not only those who volunteer, not only those who are thought to have less awareness, but everyone. Of course, specialised programmes can also be designed to target specific groups.

  • • The programmes should be comprehensive and start with a clear establishment of the meaning of sexual violence and its nuanced manifestations. The current approach, which largely appears to assume that the university community knows what sexual violence is, fails to acknowledge that certain aspects of gender bias, and even sexual violence, are so deeply rooted in social norms that they are considered normal.

  • • The programmes should be continuous. A few short orientation or periodic workshops and conferences that are mostly attended by the same small number of people who are interested in the issue are not enough. Preventive skills training and resources should be made openly available throughout the academic year and for everyone.

  • • The programmes should use different mechanisms of engagement and incentives to increase participation and sustainability.
Obviously, resource constraints and limited qualified personnel will be the challenge to implement such programmes. But, even within those limitations, this is an alternative worth considering.

One possibility is the use of volunteer training of trainers, with standardised materials and quality control. Through a pyramid scheme this could eventually reach every part of the university over a certain time period. Once that is achieved, offering mandatory training to all new students and employees could be a possible further step in order to ensure sustainability.

It is important to note that this peer-based approach is neither a substitute for other strategies nor is it considered to be sufficient on its own. It has to be used as an integrated element of broad-based approaches that are both top-down and bottom-up.

Through strengthening student services by hiring qualified staff and providing necessary resources, institutions and the government can take important steps towards creating a gender-neutral working environment for women in leadership, faculty and staff.

Ayenachew A Woldegiyorgis is a research assistant and doctoral student at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States.